Users of Google.cn, the Chinese-language version of the popular search engine, are being redirected to Google.com.hk this afternoon. The move caps several months of tense relations between Beijing and Mountain View. Limiting search results was a condition set by the government in Beijing for doing business in the world's most populous country. By acceding to the wishes of the Chinese Communist Party, Google became a target of critics who accused the company of being too cozy with officials of the Chinese Communist Party. This latest move is the strongest sign yet that executives at the tech company are pursuing a new, tougher strategy in China.
"The issue for us has always been censorship, and the lack of transparency around removals and take downs in China," says Gabriel Stricker, a Google spokesperson.
Google appears to be taking pains today to say that it is not pulling out of China altogether. The company has reportedly said it intends to maintain its R&D facilities in China, as well as its phone business in the country—a potential big moneymaker for the company.
This latest announcement follows weeks of tension between Google and China. As the search giant announced on its blog in January, a series of cyber attacks against it (and other prominent western sites including Facebook and Twitter) appeared to turn on access to information contained in the Gmail accounts of human-rights activists in China. That, Google says, led it to "conclude that we could no longer continue censoring our results on Google.cn."
The Los Angeles Times reports that the Chinese government was not forewarned about Google dropping its mandatory self-sensorship on China's mainland and thus effectively pulling out of the world's most populous nation. It's extremely rare for a foreign company operating in China to openly challenge its governmental policies.
Google declined to comment on discussions with the Chinese government, but tells Inc. it would like to reiterate that, "contrary to assertions made by the Chinese media, every decision we have made regarding China has been made by Google alone," Stricker said.
Moving forward, Chinese search results, including news and images, will not be circumscribed by Google. "Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong," the search giant's company blog says.
But the experience of searching on Google on the Hong Kong domain for residents of mainland China seems to be a remarkably similiar experience, according to Rebecca MacKinnon, a visiting fellow at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy. She says a search on mainland China for Falun Gong will yield an error message - just as it did yesterday. Only now that's not Google doing the censoring, as it had been previously, it's the Chinese government, through filtering on its network routers.
"Is it resulting in Chinese Internet users having more information? No," she says. "Is it sending a message to Chinese Internet users that their government is doing something that Google wants no part of? Yes."
MacKinnon suggests that taking a legalistic world-view is helpful in understanding Google's change in China. Because Google has been sued in Italy and other countries in recent years for hosting illegal or offensive user-generated content, which is known as intermediary liability, if the company should continue abiding by all of China's search restrictions, doing so could set a precedent for expanding censorship elsewhere.
"By accepting that liability in China, they are opening themselves up to needing to uphold that standard around the world," MacKinnon says. "Google is arguing that if you are going to hold us legally responsible for everything our users do, you will kill citizen media, you will kill web 2.0, you will kill the most creative part of the Internet. They are arguing against intermediary liability while governments all over the world are trying to hold them to stricter standards."
Users in China and abroad can check availability of Google's search functionality in China at a new site Google set up for app status monitoring.